Shawn Lacue is too young to remember that 50 years or so ago, just about every boy around his age wanted to grow up to be an astronaut.
When he soared over the bar at 6 feet, 8 inches earlier this season, though, he could relate to their reasons.
"I was amazed," said Lacue, a junior at Cambria Heights High School. "It really does slow down, being above it by just a few inches. It definitely felt like being weightless."
If being a high jumper is as close as human being under their own power could be to reaching space, then the circle an hour around Altoona would qualify as the launching pad. For an area that isn't particularly densely populated, it's churned out more than its fair share of elite competitors in the event, like Janae Dunchack, Tyler Fedeli, Rachel Gehret, Jamir Washington and Joe Thomas.
It would be no surprise if someone returns from this weekend's PIAA Track and Field Championship Meet in Shippensburg with hardware again this year. A bronze medalist last year, Altoona's DeShae Lee is tied for the top seed in boys Class AAA, while Lacue, Northern Bedford's Zach Pressel and Tyrone's Charles Wilson-Adams in Class AA all have jumped higher than 6 feet, 6 inches in their careers.
Wilson-Adams, in fact, is the reigning champion in the event in Class AA, making it three years in a row a District 6 high jumper has come away with the gold. And, this year he goes in as the silver medalist from District 6 after taking state bronze in the winter and placing seventh at the prestigious Penn Relays.
On the girls side, Tyrone freshman Erika Voyzey is seeded in a tie for eighth in Class AA, and her top jump of 5-2 would be good enough to win it some years. In all, seven area high jumpers will be in action at Seth Grove Stadium on Friday and Saturday.
Altoona high jump coach Tom Fox jumped 6-8 when he was in high school in Cleveland. He's developed a lot of respect for this area's ability to churn out high quality high jumpers year-in, year-out.
"There's great tradition throughout this area, and I think you have a lot of really good coaches," Fox said. "Certain areas are known for certain things, and, when you look at the annals of D6, you certainly see a lot of great high jumpers."
It seems like that success might be breeding success.
"The competition is definitely a lot better than it was last year. It's great to compete against other guys that are really good, because it pushes you to do better. You can't go into any event slacking off, because there's always guys to push you. That's what I like about it," Wilson-Adams said. "It's definitely a big help. Those good jumpers keep me humble and keep me focused. That's what I like about that."
While Wilson-Adams is looking for his second gold and Lee is seeking his second high medal, Pressel is looking to improve on fifth- and fourth-place finishes in the event the last two years.
"I think my experience will definitely help out. You know what the crowd's going to be like, and all the people being there, all them cheering. I definitely have to block them out. My experience will definitely help," said Pressel, who is passing up some college track recruiters and will be jumping competitively for the final time before going to Penn Tech. "It does look pretty competitive. Hopefully I can do just as good as I have been or even better."
The high jump is a fickle event. Where times on the track rarely change without some kind of catastrophe, it's not uncommon to see even the elite jumpers occasionally come in several inches off heights they seem to routinely achieve at other times.
"For me, it depends on how I'm feeling that day. Some days, I feel like I can jump high. Other days, I just don't feel it," Pressel, who set a school record with a height of 6-7 this year, said. "Also, the weather conditions play a factor."
"It's a head game. If I don't think I can do it, I'm not going to. But, if you feel confident, you can do whatever you want," Lacue said. "I don't want to think about anyone going against me. I don't want to psych myself out that he can jump almost as high as me or higher than me. If I just think about myself, I won't have anybody to get in my head."
Perhaps there is no event that combines some many different elements. In addition to the obvious jumping ability and the confident/mental factor, there is the speed needed on the curved approach and the timing to attack the bar at just the right point.
"I think it's one of the tougher events in track because you have to put a lot together," Fox said.
Once in the air, gymnastics, flexibility and body control become important.
"Honestly, form and technique is a lot," said Lee, who admits that is the area in which he needs the most improvement. "There's guys that don't get as high as me off the vertical, but they have cleared higher heights than me off the form alone."
Unlike the other key medal contenders from the area, Lee is a relative novice to the event. He was a runner and horizontal jumper - the triple jump was his best event - until 10th grade when Altoona coach Mike Adams saw him dunking the basketball and decided to switch his event.
"I honestly never think about it. I just go and jump over it. I've always been trying to jump and touch stuff since a young age. That's probably why it doesn't really bother me," Lee said. "I definitely made some progress [on technique]. Actually, that's what I've been trying to focus on this week. I got a lot of form work. My natural ability's only going to take me so far."
Lee said he didn't even place a mark from which to start his approach at districts. He still got a season-best 6-7, even jumping on a bad hamstring.
"I think he can be tremendous. He just seems to be turning it on at the right time. He has that God-given ability, no doubt about it," Fox said of Lee.
Surprisingly, Lee said he almost didn't come out for track this year because basketball is his first love. However, an injury ended his hoops season early, so he decided to try to better his third-place showing at states in 2012.
After jumping 6-5 in the district meet, Lee jumped a personal-record 6-8 at states to share the bronze medal with Shawn Johnson of Canon-McMillan. The experience has left him yearning for more, and a dream to be the first Mountain Lion to win the high jump since Fedeli won the second of back-to-back golds in 2002. He thinks 6-10 will be the height for which to shoot to win the gold, but he's been chasing Fedeli's school record and the 7-foot mark all season - he's made 6-10 in practice.
"Last year, I wasn't satisfied. It was a big accomplishment, but I had higher expectations for myself, so it just made me more hungry for this year to prove myself," Lee said.
Wilson-Adams already has been at the pinnacle, but he comes into this year feeling he still has plenty to prove.
"I don't think that it gives me an advantage, and I don't think it puts any pressure on me at all," said Wilson-Adams, who won with a jump of 6-8 last year but will be seeded low this weekend because he went out at 6-2 in districts. "Last year, I came in and I was a really low seed. This year I'm a really low seed. So, obviously, winning a state championship last year doesn't mean much. If I was jumping against myself, I wouldn't care at all, and that's the way I'm thinking. I'm going in as if I'm not the state champion anymore."
"Last year was last year. It means nothing now. It's just whatever happens on that day. That's what I'm focusing on."
Wilson-Adams has been dealing with a torn knee ligament from midseason. However, he's still jumped higher than 6-6 and he's ready to go at Shippensburg in both the high jump and long jump.
"I'm feeling really good. I'm feeling 100 percent," Wilson-Adams said. "It was definitely a concern, but I had to learn to deal with it and to put it past me in order to get my season going the way I wanted it to. Most of it was mental. A little bit of it was physical, but, once I got over the fact that it was there, it didn't really bother me."
Wilson-Adams has been hearing from Pitt, South Carolina, Penn State and Robert Morris but hasn't decided yet about college.
"My first time clearing 6-6, I thought it was the greatest thing in the world. It was an amazing height. Once I got 6-8, 6-6 didn't seem so great. I was still happy to get it, but I was more excited for 6-8. Then, once I got 6-8, I started thinking, 'Wow, I can really get a lot higher.' It's a great feeling getting those heights, but you always know in the back of your mind that you can get higher."
That's a lot different experience than that of Lacue, who edged Wilson-Adams for the 6-AA gold. Lacue, who, like Wilson-Adams has been high jumping since seventh grade, didn't make higher than 6-1 before this, his junior year. Then, early in the season, he set the Heights' record of 6-6 and pushed that up to 6-8 in the same meet.
"I worked a lot over the summer. Every other year I would come out and jump. Lifting and practicing a lot really helped," Lacue said.
Not many teenage athletes would have put in the kind of time Lacue did to improve from average to elite in one year.
"When I was in the younger grades, my height was a lot better for the grade. I liked the sport a lot, so I put forth the effort," Lacue said. "It was a unique sport. I really wanted to try it. After I tried it, I liked it. The first three years, [my form] was terrible. After I finally got it, things started getting better. I never had a high jump coach or a jumping coach, but I went to a ton of camps, and all of them really helped. And I had former track people from CH, they would come out and help."
This is Lacue's first trip to the state meet.
"I'm really excited for it. I'm kind of nervous, too, because there's going to be some top competition there," Lacue said. "I actually kind of like it that I know some of them who are going that I've already jumped against. But I just keep trying to think that I've jumped 6-8 before. I can do it again."
Pressel isn't going by himself, either, but he'll have plenty of familiar faces from his own team: Northern Bedford qualified three jumpers for states, including Pressel's twin brother, Tayler.
"I definitely think having my teammates there will help me. I hope they do good, because that will make me feel good and not worry," Pressel said.
Pressel said competing against what this area has to offer in the high jump could be an advantage.
"It kind of helped me see where everyone's at and knowing what I'll have to do to place," Pressel said.